In February, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) flagged Wesleyan for contradicting its own commitment to freedom of speech with what it deems “substantial restrictions on students’ expressive rights” and named us Speech Code of the Month. Wesleyan last drew FIRE’s ire in 2011, during the infamous Beta-Gate, when they chastised The_Real_MRoth in an open letter for restricting our freedom of assembly with his changes to the university’s housing policy.
What exactly, you might ask, is a speech code? According to their website, “FIRE defines a ‘speech code’ as any university regulation or policy that prohibits expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large.” In this case, FIRE is drawing attention to a clause in Wesleyan’s Student Handbook on discrimination and harassment.
The right to abstain from performing acts and the right to be protected against actions that may be harmful to the health or emotional stability of the individual or that degrade the individual or infringe upon his/her personal dignity.
FIRE takes issue with prohibiting actions based on how individuals might react, rather than appealing to some objective standard of what a “reasonable person” might do. More broadly, it points out that under the First Amendment, you can’t censor something just because some (or most, or even all) people find it offensive or upsetting, no matter how reasonable that reaction may be.
Obviously a private institution like Wesleyan has no legal obligation to uphold the First Amendment, though FIRE clearly thinks it should do it anyway. I think we have to at least demand really good justifications for any and all restrictions that go beyond what the constitution allows, as well as much more clearly and consistently articulated standards for how we as students are allowed to express ourselves.